is the author of , Stonehouse Publishing (2019). Her first book, from McGill-Queen’s University Press, won the Alison Prentice Award for Women’s History. Her essays, fiction and poetry have appeared in many publications including The Literary Review of Canada, Descant and Musicworks, as well as in the anthologies, At the End of Life: True Stories About How We Die and The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood. She has made two radio series for CBC Ideas. In 2005, Maria founded the which specializes in unpublished work by emerging and established writers. and is at work on two sequels to The Work, as well as a book-length memoir.
As the surprise guest speaker at our 10th anniversary event on November 13th, Maria gave her first Toronto reading of the her novel The Work. Here she writes a detailed account about how her novel came to be.
Wasting time on The Work – a blog entry in which I talk myself out of a curmudgeonly mood
When it came time to getting dressed for the event, I agonized. What does a surprise guest wear? Something warm enough for a gross, late–autumn evening in Toronto, of course.
Okay. Okay. It wasn’t about the clothes. I had to admit, I wanted to stay home.
After over a decade of working on The Work it seems surreal that the book is finally coming out. I worked on it in the early mornings, and it became a companion, as dependable and delightful as my first coffee of the day. Through years of drafts, I came to believe it would always be there, in endlessly tweakable, manuscript form.
But those days are gone. It’s time to set The Work free.
But I still wonder if The Work works. With all the years I took to write it, with all the help I had, it should be a better book. And so much has changed since the idea was conceived. Do my attempts to keep it relevant – for myself, for others – read like afterthoughts?
Most of all … it’s a work of imagination, and this scares me. The imagination has a life of its own. I am no apologist for those writers who make inspiration an excuse for all kinds of narrative crimes, but I do know that parts of my personality I might otherwise disavow might surface in fiction. Where memoir feels like roll-up-my-sleeves, ever-in-control, work-womanly task (in the best way), a novel has the potential of showing my blind spots.
Where do these thoughts belong, on the eve of a book launch? There are lots of good reasons to keep them private. Or banish them altogether. Still, I have found myself spilling my doubts and fears to patient friends over the past couple of weeks. And it’s always a massive relief.
I have no time for temperamental writers who mutter their way through public events, resentful of the very readers who are buying their books and coming out through crappy, late-autumn nights to hear them mutter. But I get it. Or at least, I think I do. Confidence can be exhausting. Better to project, through sloppy clothes and a grumpy manner, that a show of … anything – is just not on the menu.
Sometimes it feels like the angry young men (now old men) trope is being replaced with that of the breathy young woman. I was young, at one point, but I never could get the dewy-eyed thing right. And – to put it delicately – that ship has sailed.
Come to think of it, I entered another coveted state – that of marriage – later than most people, and I was ambivalent about that, too. Not about the person I was marrying or the fact of getting married, but about people’s response to the event. There, too, I bit my tongue. My statistical chances of finding a mate at this advanced age drew comparisons to violence. Why shouldn’t everyone be happy for me?
Because … what about all the time I spent on my own, before this? I was forty-three years old. Were all those years of life experience to be overshadowed by what a saleslady at The Bay called The Most Important Day of My Life? By the way, I’m still happily married, but the reason was encapsulated in my answer to that lady: “The wedding is less important than the marriage.”
My desire to write fiction came over me in my thirties, right about the time when friends were having babies. Sitting down to do it felt so joyful and powerful that I thought it shouldn’t be allowed. The joy felt positively dangerous. But it also eluded me. It would hide away at the hint of any instability in my life, particularly when it came to the needs of others. It waited in the shadows, appearing – like a dear old friend – whenever I had a break. We’d pick up where we left off, as if no time had passed. And then it would disappear again.
I didn’t start consistently working on a novel until both my parents had died. I didn’t feel I could be who I was for them, and also let go, in the way that was necessary to write an extended work of fiction. I always wrote, but my family generated so much material that writing about anything else felt like a waste of time. Fiction took away energy from a precious and deeply intimidating legacy. But if this was a waste of time, I wanted to waste time, to create something other than the stories that had been left to me to sort and process. The Work grew slowly because it was willing to be deferred, to leave bigger and more important projects to take centre stage.
I hate sliding into the book–as–baby metaphor. (So sue me; I didn’t have them.) But it keeps presenting itself, and it can be useful sometimes.
For instance, what if The Work were a baby?
This book would be a modest and undemanding middle child. Not trumpeting her talents or demanding attention, always cleaning up her mess, helping to look after the other kids. This middle child might not be so keen on taking up space. It would be up to me to make space for her, encourage her to step confidently out into the world. And I would.